How to holiday in Honolulu without the price tag

Hawaii is the ultimate beach holiday destination, but it can also be expensive if you don't know where to look. Here are the best ways to have a great time without blowing the budget.

  • Jetstar
  • February 2018

Honolulu: an idyllic holiday destination with plenty of action and fun for the whole family. But this island paradise can fast become a money pit if you don’t have the inside scoop. Here are our top dollar-saving tips for enjoying the sun, surf and sand of Honolulu on a budget.

10 things you didn't know about Hawaii opens in new window
Where to find the best bargains in Hawaii opens in new window

Currency exchange

The worst way to exchange currency is to do it at home before you go—the rates you’ll get in Honolulu will be better. Avoid exchanging money at the airport or at hotels; shop around and use a currency conversion website or app such as XE opens in new window to find out the mid-market rates. Stick with the banks, although the fact that the big US banks have no retail presence in Hawaii means that rates are less competitive.

You’re likely to get better rates by using ATMs and credit or debit card transactions. Check your bank’s international transaction fees, taking into account both the withdrawal fee (likely to be a flat fee) and the currency conversion fee (usually a percentage of the total withdrawal). Hawaiian banks also charge a withdrawal fee of USD $3-5 or more, depending on the bank and even the branch. Withdraw large amounts to offset this.

When you pay by credit card you may be offered the choice of paying in your home currency or local currency. Always choose local—your credit card company will give you a better rate. Pro tip: some grocery stores may let you withdraw small amounts along with your credit card purchase.

How to get around

Oahu is tiny, only a little over 1500 square kilometres, and there’s a public bus system to get you around the island, so there’s no need to splash out on expensive car hire. It may take you a little longer to get around and they can get busy, but they’re efficient and great for sight-seeing, and you can pre-plan your journey at the The Bus opens in new window website or by downloading their app.

The big budget bonus for families is that children under the age of five ride for free with an adult, and kids aged 6 to 17 pay around half the adult fare. And adult fares are reasonable: single tickets (USD $2.75) and daily passes (USD $5.50) are available—just be prepared to feed the correct change to the machine beside the driver, as no change is given. If you’re staying a couple of weeks or longer and plan to do frequent bus travel, consider grabbing a monthly pass opens in new window.

Outdoor food with friends

Where to eat

Due to the small size and remote location of the island, much of the produce is flown in from the US mainland, which often means inflated menu prices. To trim your restaurant bill, skip the expensive imported fare in favour of the locals’ favourite dishes.

Not that you’ll feel like you’re missing out. The best authentic Hawaiian food is pleasingly budget-friendly. Take poke (pronounced pok-ay). Now the world’s trendiest bowl food, this traditional dish of marinated raw fish over rice is delicious and ubiquitous—you’ll find it everywhere from supermarkets to petrol stations. And if you’re a raw fish lover, Honolulu is known for quality sushi for a rock-bottom price.

Also look out for saimin, the Hawaiian take on Japanese ramen noodles, and plate lunch, which might be almost anything but will usually be a tasty meat dish paired with rice and/or macaroni salad, served on a take-away polystyrene plate from roadside stalls, drive-throughs and hole-in-the-wall restaurants all over the island. You may (or may not) also want to track down the famous Spam masubi—a slice of grilled Spam strapped on to a block of rice with a strip of nori (dried seaweed), like a giant sushi from hell.

Food trucks are a real Hawaiian institution, and are dotted all over Oahu. At Pau Hana Market opens in new window in Waikiki, you’ll find the holy grail of food truck culture, a food truck food court, with an abundance of local and international cuisines that will definitely get you salivating. Dishes are around USD $10-15.

Save even more of your pennies when chowing down in Honolulu by following these tips:

  • Hawaii has a great, clean water supply. Bring your own reusable bottle to refill each day and take with you.
  • Shop at farmers markets opens in new window and fish markets rather than large malls, to take advantage of super-fresh food at rock-bottom prices (and rub elbows with the locals).
  • Grab snacks such as fruit, yoghurt and bargain macadamia nuts from the nearest convenience store (such as ABC—they’re everywhere!).
Aloha Tower Marketplace

Where to shop

If you’re familiar with the retail price of sought-after items back home, you can score some real bargains shopping in Honolulu. Savvy shoppers can pick up big brand kids and adults clothing, designer handbags and jewellery at far less than the duty-free price.

Ala Moana Mall opens in new window, a sprawling outdoor shopping centre, is walking distance from most Waikiki hotels. It’s also home to a massive Macy’s store, where you can lose yourself for hours amongst the clearance racks of brand-name kids clothes and designer fashion. You can also hop on a bus to get to Kahala Mall opens in new window, where stores like Banana Republic and Sunglass Hut are vying for your attention.

Cocktail drink by the beach

Drinking in Honolulu

First, the bad news: you’re not allowed to drink, or have an open alcohol container, on the beach in Waikiki. So beachside BYO is out. The good news is that many of the bars and restaurants that line Waikiki beach have a happy hour, so you don’t have to pay top dollar for a seaside tipple. Start with Honolulu institution Dukes opens in new window, where happy hour is the perfect time to enjoy the laid-back vibe.

If you plan it right, you can hop from one venue to the next and soak in the sensational views between drinks. There’s no set time for happy hour, but at most places it goes from one to three hours, sometime between 3pm and 7pm.

If you don’t mind being a little away from the beach, Arnold’s Beach Bar is a classic tiki joint with cheap drink deals all day and free popcorn popped in bacon grease. Now that’s the Aloha Spirit!